Giving New Zealand sauvignon blanc a second chance

Consumers may hold strong opinions about certain kinds of wine, but occasionally revisiting those biases opens people up to new pleasures.
Consumers may hold strong opinions about certain kinds of wine, but occasionally revisiting those biases opens people up to new pleasures. ILLUSTRATION: NYTIMES

(NYTIMES) - The past few weeks of Wine School have been as much of an education for me as they may have been for anybody else.

It has been a while since I have regularly consumed New Zealand sauvignon blancs. Over the years, I had come to believe that too many were generic and formulaic. None that I have tasted in the past few years had really changed my mind.

But this is Wine School, where one of our guiding principles is that attitudes towards wine are not fixed in amber. Categorical beliefs – “I don’t drink red wine,” “I don’t like Bordeaux,” “New Zealand sauvignon blanc is generic and formulaic” – have to be revisited occasionally. 

It is important to question whether these beliefs have a real basis or serve simply as another example of the all-too-human impulse to cling to a stance regardless of the facts.

What could cause a person to shun a particular type of wine? Many things. 

Perhaps you drank a bottle of Chianti at a disagreeable dinner and thereafter you have associated the wine with those unpleasant feelings. The connection may be real, but must that Chianti always take the blame for the unpalatable context in which it was served?

Or perhaps you really did have a bad bottle. Maybe you would enjoy a bottle from a better producer, with different food or with a more interesting television programme in the background. Or maybe an obnoxious guy’s favourite wine is Chianti, so you have staked out opposing ground to demonstrate your thorough contempt for him.

Your own taste may have evolved over time.

Mine did, and most people’s do, especially when they are young and just beginning to explore wine. The more wines you try, the more experiences you are able to file away, giving your brain the information it needs to form that endlessly malleable mystery known as personal taste.

Now, regardless of the reason, I know plenty of people who have decided conclusively they will not drink certain wines. That is their right and I would not bully anybody about the wines they choose to enjoy.

But here at Wine School, the aim is to be open-minded and relentlessly curious.

Each month when we drink the wines at meals with friends and family, the hope is to give the wines a chance. You can love or hate the wine. What matters is thinking about why it affects you in that particular way.

This month’s wines were my opportunity to practise what I preach. The three wines I recommended were each from Marlborough on the South Island of New Zealand, the region most associated with sauvignon blanc. They were Seresin Estate Momo 2015, Huia 2016 and Cloudy Bay 2016.

I was not surprised that many readers said they loved New Zealand sauvignon blanc, one of the most popular styles of wine in the world. Cloudy Bay – one of the best early examples of the style back in the mid-1980s, when it first gained worldwide attention – drew particular raves.

“I love, love, love Cloudy Bay,” New Yorker wrote, adding that New Zealand sauvignon blancs in general “are my summer water.” 

But given my own lack of enthusiasm about the style, I was also not surprised to see some grumpy reactions.

“If Wine School is about overcoming preconceptions, this month’s class has a hill to climb,” Dan Barron of New York wrote. “I can’t think of a wine I’ve tasted more and desire less than New Zealand sauvignon blanc.” 

I particularly enjoy the herbal, minerally type of sauvignon blanc that you can find from the Loire Valley regions of Sancerre, Pouilly-Fume and beyond. I love white Bordeaux, in which sauvignon blanc is often blended with semillon.

New World sauvignon blancs can be delicious. But they are often treated as afterthoughts, mass-produced wines that produce reliable profits for wine companies but never receive the attention of the chardonnay, pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon that is the producer’s primary passion. That is an issue I had sensed with more than a few New Zealand sauvignon blancs. But one of the three wines I drank changed my mind.

The Huia 2016 was fresh and lively. It was bone-dry, with zesty flavours of lime and tropical fruits. It was not herbal in the way that I would expect a Loire wine to be, but it offered a restrained minerality that was lingering and resonant, giving the wine depth, texture and presence. It was, in a word, lovely.

By contrast, the Momo 2015 exhibited the more grassy, pungent, vegetal side of sauvignon blanc with aromas of hay, citrus and bell peppers. It was lively but with a narrower bandwidth than the Huia. Perhaps the extra year of age played a role, or maybe the 2015 vintage emphasised different sorts of flavours than the 2016, but this was not the sort of wine that draws me in.

The Cloudy Bay 2016 was somewhere in the middle, with aromas of herbs and tropical fruit, lively and energetic, but without the intensity of flavour I ordinarily associate with Cloudy Bay. It did not stir the emotions like the Huia, but I found it a pleasant bottle.

Most readers really enjoyed these sauvignon blancs. 

John Fraser of Toronto, who is from New Zealand, found the wines fruitier than the Loire sauvignon blancs and said they complemented his meal of halibut and vegetable ragout. Joseph of Ile-de-France really liked the Momo, which was not my favourite, and described it as restrained and in balance “with a ghostly nod to a Sauternes”.

Not so many people were able to find the Huia, the bottle I liked best. But those who did shared my opinion of it. 

Martin Schappeit of Forest, Virginia, said that he liked all three wines so much that he reordered them all after drinking them. But the Huia, with “green apple acidity”, was his favourite. And Barron of New York, who had such low expectations of New Zealand sauvignon blanc, said the Huia was a step up from any of the bottles he’d had in the past.

“I swear I heard it whisper in my ear: ‘Don’t take me too serious. Let’s have a good time here,’” he wrote. “And that we did.” 

That is exactly the sort of open-mindedness Wine School would like to encourage. I hope I have learnt that lesson myself. I know I plan to drink the Huia again and will try not to close myself off to other examples.